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Chinese in America, The

by: Iris Chang

New York NY: Penguin Books 2003, $16.00, Paperback
ISBN: 0-014-200417-0

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Fall Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(4) page(s): 24

Read and look at one hundred fifty years plus of the Chinese in America. Learn details of how they helped build this country’s infrastructure as they sought a better life for themselves. The book interweaves their background, behaviors, and beliefs into American History.

The San Francisco Chronicle called this the 'Best Book of the Year;' and no wonder. Destinies of these immigrants are detailed, and long overdue. The author interweaves economic, political, and social history with America’s history as this immigrant group fights racism and exclusionary laws. This best look at America’s Chinese story is a 'do not miss' volume because Chang is passionate as she fills pages with readable and believable narrative themes. Putting the book down is difficult, if not impossible, start to finish. From early pages that remind of the gold rush when less than fifty lived in the continental United States to nearly today when there are many millions, page after page captures the reader.

Reading explores this culture from the word ku li, which literally means 'hard strength' to the hard work they did on the transcontinental railroads, in managing restaurants and herbal emporia, producing and selling Chinese-language newspapers, erecting and working in malls, banks, and real estate, and so much more. Chinese input was extensive. Chang shares moments even die-hard Chinaphiles do not know about.

The book is an overflowing plate of terrific and trying moments in history that everyone who cares about the Chinese must read because there were all too many moments when Americans were less than kind, even though the Chinese immigrants were hard-working, ambitious, and frugal. Politicians and plain folk did all they could to keep them out of the country, marginalize those already here, and/or boot out others for real or railroaded reasons.

The Chinese in America is entertaining through its personal stories and sweeping looks at the plight of those immigrants who early on did manage citizenship, and others who did not. Reading it is not just for Chinese Americans who need to know their own history. It is a remarkable narrative for every person who cares about democracy practiced well or poorly. The book chronicles civil liberties and the lack of them. It is a passionate window, a major drama, and many days of entertainment in the almost five hundred pages of Chinese history in America.

Enjoy learning that in 1856 in San Francisco, the Chinese on Dupont Street had at least thirty-three stores selling assorted merchandise, fifteen apothecaries, five herbalists, five restaurants, five barbers, five butchers, three tailors, two bakers, and one interpreter. The only thing missing, but perhaps it will be in Chang’s next in-depth look at the Chinese in America, is what the food businesses sold, and to whom.

Chang ends with the chapter: An Uncertain Future. Hopefully, she is not on target about still more anti-Chinese backlash and national hostility to Chinese-Americans, but closer to reality as organizations such as The Organization of Chinese Americans, which was founded in 1973, deal more effectively with civil rights lobbying and promoting crucial issues for all Chinese Americans.

The book ends with another issue to ponder. With more Chinese Americans becoming Asian American or other labels due to intermarriage, will Chinese ethnic identity remain strong? Read and find out what it meant and now means to be Chinese American. This may be the best resource to learn how this group forges ahead and how and if it establishes a new identity.

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